Boston — The junior high school years (ages 11-15) often seem particularly difficult for the one going through them. It's a time when a listening ear can mean a great deal -- particularly that of a listener who isn't also a counselor, teacher, parent, or guardian; that is, someone who is not "in charge" or who "feels responsible."
Let every school match each junior high youngster with an adult in the community.
The match may follow career lines -- the young black girl who has already signaled a desire to be a lawyer, or the baseball player who wonders if playing professionally might not be "the way to go."
Or, the match may follow a hobby or an avocation --the stamp collector, skiing hot dogger, puppeteer, musician, model train collector.
Perhaps the match might be to fill a hollow -- a boy without a father, a girl brought up by an older relative, a child without any brothers or sisters, a foster child originating from another culture.
Or maybe the match is just one that love cements --someone who wants a listener with someone who finds it easy to listen.
Time should be made each week of the school year for pupils and adults to get together, if not at school, then within easy commuting distance of school, and certainly by telephone if a personal visit isn't possible.
The youngster is the one who should be given the choice, the school having secured a list of active volunteers. And each child, as soon as he's found a "good listener," should be able to keep this mentor-friend through the rest of his junior high school years and beyond, should both find the relationship mutually supportive.
The school could certainly help with early rapport by holding "get acquainted" evenings, in which the youngsters have an opportunity to perform and their chosen listeners have an opportunity to gauge their interests and abilities.
Perhaps the first occasion could be a hobby night, when products are on display; a second time, given to musical and theatrical presentations; another time a field trip to some civic "happening"; and so on.
The listeners are not parental replacements, but mentors in the true spirit of that word: adults who care about the children in their community and want to give one -- a special one -- a helping hand.
Should a listener move away from the area or be unable to carry out his or her assignment, another should be found, unless pupil and mentor want to keep in touch by phoning and writing.
While the listeners' primary responsibility is to support the work at school -- to encourage pupils to put out the greatest effort -- there is a deep social need as well. A need for each teen-ager to proceed gently -- and in balance -- from childhood to adulthood.
For some youngsters, it would seem the schools move too slowly, catering to those with the least ability and letting the more able youngsters strive on their own.
For other youngsters, the opposite is the case. Just as they get the point of catching up -- in sports or in academics -- the class is off again, sprinting what appears to the youngster to be impossibly far ahead.
What an important role, then, the adult listener can play, being able to provide encouragement and assurance, and to be the one person to whom a youngster can turn to to share his concerns, whose task is not to judge whether or not he is or is not keeping up.
How much more comfortable junior high would be, knowing that you had someone you can trust with your thoughts -- someone who can hold your mental hand and give you a pus h if you need it.
Next week: Reading lists